I have spent the last month talking to producers, writers, directors, execs–in short, varied veterans of the film business–trying to get an overview of the business of Hollywood, and I have come away with a difficult picture for aspiring writers of film and TV.
The over-arching change of the last decade, since the cottage industry of amateur screenwriting launched, exploded, and opened the promise of a six-figure sale to anyone with a keyboard, has been the demise of development. It might have been growing, unseen, at the millennial turn, then felt blows from the Writers’ Strike, the financial crisis, the wooing of production out of Los Angeles, the onslaught of free content, but whatever the cause, the landscape has changed permanently. Even high-end, accomplished writers are finding themselves writing on spec unless they are fulfilling a franchise. Producers are forced to develop material with no support from studios. Many veteran producers have given up producing altogether, or have taken jobs to fortify their passion. The bottom line is nearly everyone is working for free.
In case you don’t know how it was, while Hollywood was hardly a haven for writers, there were structures in place that supported writers and producers as they developed ideas. I, for example, was employed by 20th Century Fox as the assistant to Bill Broyles while he developed three pictures, funded by the studio, with three different producers. Producers got paid. Writers got paid over a series of developed steps, from early inception to multiple drafts. Those days are almost entirely behind us.
On the one hand these changes may appear to level the field. Instead of working with a stable of writers who might win assignments based on their work and reputation, the industry is largely looking for completed material they know they can market. The new writer appears to be in as strong a position as the seasoned pro to make the spec sale if it is executed well. But the real truth is that the spec field now includes incredibly talented and prolific writers who have no shortage of good material, can write fast, and can write deep. And, after you sell one, you have to, in many ways, start over again. Sure, you have relationships that will make it a lot easier to get your material read. But not to get paid.
Others have written more eloquently, both with more and less hope, about the business of screenwriting. I am not here to burst a bubble. I know those of us toiling at day jobs dream of a respite, or at least of doing a JK Rowling. I believe sales can be made. Of course they are made. I just don’t believe making a sale can be the reason writers write. I would argue that if you are writing just to get paid, you will likely not ever write anything good enough to get made, and you will shortly not be getting paid for something you love to do, but something you have to do. (And of course you must be smart and write great cinematic ideas, as opposed to stories about lepers or erotic thrillers about octogenarians.) The truth is after working with hundreds of writers, even those with dollar signs in their eyes, I don’t believe money motivates writers to write, at least not to write with the expanse of imagination required to hold an entire film in one’s mind. I might list freedom, passion, other things that getting paid for doing what you love might afford, but I still think it’s different. And I think it is an important distinction, because we absolutely should get paid for our work, but for the right reasons.
And so, when someone asks me, as they often do, “what should I write?” “What is Hollywood looking for?” I think they are asking the wrong question, and I will come back to that. My job is to help the writer bring his vision to fruition, to the screen, the page, to see it delivered. If I could create a sale each time, I would dance in the streets, but a power greater than myself seems to have hold of that department. The truth is that the spec sale has become nearly chimerical, novel advances are all but gone. So we have to ask, if real money is such a long-shot, and it is, what on earth are we writing for? What is the dream?
Back in the day, the dream was to publish the Great American Novel, or, I might argue, the Great 20th Century Novel. Writers strove to be among the esteemed and rarified few who had something transcendent and original to say, in a way that moved and transformed the world, and whose utterances, whose completely unique and profound point of view, might instigate an awakening, start a religion, or at the very least change the English speaking world’s perspective on life, the universe and everything. Oh, Steinbeck, with his tender, piercing and bloody rendering of the guts of American life. Or Hemingway, his mirror so glaring and uncluttered, the rawness is almost unbearable. Or Kerouac, grabbing onto the rushing, searching, breathless voice of god and godless and connection and change and agony and possibility. The chance to be the voice of a generation. To start a revolution. These are the unspoken drives of a writer. Or to explode a secret, use an undreamt of phrase to capture a banned thought, something so private and unseemly, like Jong coining the phrase “the zipless fuck.”
The point is, the quest was about perspective, about seeing the world in such a way that we stood in awe of that vision, because it was so TRUE, and because it had never been said that way before, and because our humanity was deepened and we felt in a rush to express all that WE knew about life, all that we have felt, because it is so important, to us, to everyone. We were, we are, driven, to use Joseph Campbell’s assessment of the compulsion of people to tell stories, to bring the elixir to the people, if we have found it.
Then the movies came, and they were magnificent. They made us laugh and cry and took us on journeys that transported us through all of our senses to other places, though truly we never leave the theater, we are only driven within. And we love the popcorn movies and the ones that we forget about but are glad we saw, because we love to be entertained, but those are not the ones that make us want to write. Those might be the ones that make us think we can write. That maybe we can’t write Chinatown, or Citizen Kane, but we can certainly write movies as good as these others, forgettable and entertaining and not bad at all (in fact we can certainly write better ones).
Then there are THOSE movies. The unspeakably great. The ones that blow us apart and leave us panting and that we either cannot speak about or cannot stop speaking about, that we give awards for and watch in a kind of secret sacredness because something is revealed that we know but did not know we knew until we saw it. It might be just one scene, but it blows the world and everything we knew apart and yet when we see it we recognize, THAT is the thing. We know that we knew that we knew and we feel it for one fleeting moment through our whole DNA, and it changes us, because we have seen it, and it has been exposed. Perhaps these moments are personal. They are like a crystallization of character or an epiphany or a catharsis in theater but they are a revelation of the whole human experience. Perhaps they depend on your sophistication, your experience, your mood, as you come across them. I can name the ones that never leave me: the slaying of the ox at the end of Apocalypse Now, where I suddenly, viscerally knew for certain, at 17 years old, that we brutally slaughter each other and we are all one and that horror lives inside of me. Or that moment in Life is Beautiful, when the father is translating the German nightmare of the concentration camps to his young child through humor and the entire barrack holds up the shield and the lie to protect the holy innocence that is our birthright and our nature, the deepest and most profound love we have for each other, that is unwavering even in the face of unspeakable evil. Each moment like this is as blazing and searing as something that has happened to me. Because everything that happens to everyone happens to me.
There are the beautiful, funny, whole movies that connect us to our humanity a little more gently, like Forty Year Old Virgin and American Pie and Bridesmaids and Legally Blonde and Little Miss Sunshine. And there are big broad romps and beautiful spoofs where we get to laugh at our foibles and the airs we put on, or just play like children and talk about farts and laugh and forget there was anything ever besides Raisinets and sticky seats.
There are still, every year, so many good movies, despite the energy of the economy, the terrible spec market. I have come to be a fan of all movies, because each of them is a triumph over the impossible, hundreds of people committing, facing and overcoming their fears, to bring a vision to the screen, however imperfect, however short of great. Hundreds of millions of dollars, the sweat and passion and commitment and life of every person involved over a period of years that contributes to this fantastic wobbling monument that is a movie! I am not a movie snob. I am a movie celebrator. Because I know what can happen to me when they get it right, even for just a few moments.
And so I come back to the eternal quest, why do we write, because we have something to say. When I talk to writers, all of them, all of us, have something secret and strong and powerful to reveal. No one wants to write an okay story. No one has only an okay story inside of them, though they may be trying to settle for one. Even if it’s just a simple, funny story, it comes from a place that captures a side of humanity, of their human experience, that they need to reveal.
Last night, I met an Aussie waiter at a beachside restaurant on Maui. He was gorgeous, with a villainous smile, built like a triathlete, funny as hell. He played all night with the ladies, tossing out jokes and flirts, in good taste for an Aussie, most of them ending with the promise of a beer. I happened to walk out with him to our cars which were parked a long way away, and, as we walked, I asked him the question I always get, “how did you end up on Maui?” “I met a guy,” he said, and while I was trying to absorb this, wondering if this swaggering Aussie could have fallen in love with a man, which is how I ended up on Maui, he launched into his story, which he managed to convey in its entirety in less than two minutes, how a broken heart had driven him to California, where he met and married the most beautiful girl in the world. He worked in sales but couldn’t stand being confined so tried his hand as a waiter, and made such an impact, a “guy” offered him a job selling timeshare on Maui, not the least bit concerned that he knew nothing about it. He went home to his wife, a triathlete and holistic health expert, to ask her what she thought, and she started packing right then and there. They lived in paradise, in mad love, until one day they were making love and he found a lump in her breast. The first doctor said it was nothing, and the second revealed that she had Stage 4 breast cancer. He stayed by her side for the agonizing journey of her fight, sent her ashes to sea on Valentine’s Day last year, which is why, it turned out, he had just returned from a trip to the coldest place he could think of during Valentine’s 2014, and why he worked two jobs, so he didn’t stare at the walls all night and miss his wife. WHAM.
I went to sleep thinking of him, of his love, of his loss. I woke up thinking of them. As he told his story, his beautiful face, the mask of the villainous smile, was slowly transformed by his love and his grief. And after a long silence, because I could not even respond, the shift of my judgment and his true character being so brief, he said, “I am a better man because of it. At least that came of it.” And he talked in genuine wonder about friends who commended him for sticking by her side, who later divorced, and how he could not imagine how you could stop loving your wife. Ever. I can see him in my mind’s eye, the light drizzle coming down, the streetlight, his strength and consuming grief and the light of her wrapped all around him and I don’t have words to express what he felt, or what I felt.
But Jesus I wish I did. And that is why I write. Because I need to remember that I am wrong all the time, that I am shallow and I am MISSING it. Because I see someone or something and think I know what it is, and then, the beating heart of this beautiful man is bleeding on the street, and, beside it, all the pain of the world, and there is nothing I can do and I am filleted alive, in that tiny moment, with him. Nothing I can do. Nothing we can do. Maybe that is part of what makes the stories that dig into our souls. That there is NOTHING we can do, except stay alive, and live here with him. “I am a better man because of it.” Nothing I say could matter, and nothing I could do. Except I might have fallen to his knees and offered him anything for taking me to mine. I would not want to walk into his fire, could not imagine withstanding it, and yet I am so grateful that he opened his palms and let me see the flames, even if it is just because he cannot help it. I can’t describe why, except that I know somehow I have looked into the eternal and the holy and I am blessed.
And so we write. Perhaps to render these moments, perhaps to withstand them. This is why we love to laugh, desperately need to laugh. Why perhaps we need horror, too, because the agony of our own lives, or our loved ones, is too great to bear unless it is in disguise. And we write to know that we are in the brotherhood and sisterhood and that dammit we are not alone.
So I cannot think of how to answer the question of “what should we write” or “what is Hollywood wanting to buy?” It will change, and changes, and Hollywood will buy what is least afraid of, in the moment that it presents itself, and the opportunities that will make it possible, and if you can solve THAT algorithm, I wish you nothing but success.
The real question, for me, is “What do people need to see?” What do we NEED to see? And this is where the business of movies is so brutal for screenwriters, because we have the hundredth monkey effect, and hundreds of thousands of creative, driven, writers are spinning ideas all the time, pulling down from the great unconscious what we need to see, to withstand, to survive, to flourish, and they are stories that might be similar. They might be overlapping. They might have exactly the same subject or close to the storyline, and then the writer’s heart and spirit are shattered when the competing project gets made, and it is NOT their movie. And it’s hard to say which is worse, when it is good, or not good, but it is not yours.
And THIS is why you need to write more than screenplays. This is why you need to access your work, who you are, all that you, personally know, to brand yourself as a writer, a real writer, of screenplays and also other forms. You cannot allow yourself, creatively, to be attached to a spec sale, because then you stop writing what people need to see, and you start writing what you think Hollywood will buy, and you might win that lottery, and I will take you out for a drink, but you also might die in the process and spend your life, like an addict, trying to reach that next sale.
You should write prose, whether it is fiction, or non-fiction, or memoir, so that you train yourself how to use words. So that you can let your mind run and your sentences fly and try to keep up with your thoughts and follow them to crazy places, then learn to edit and wrap back around and make it all make sense. You should write prose to learn to get rid of adverbs. To find JUST the right word. To crystallize your voice. To find a better word than crystallize, which I have already used once and surely does not belong twice in a short essay. To feel okay about a fragment if it fits your rhythm. To know that you are writing a fragment.
You should keep writing screenplays, and you should write TV pilots and series and learn about the relentless structure of TV writing and the power of its characters.
You should write poems to learn the art of distillation, to use the charge of every word, to learn to crush and unveil a moment, a truth, a feeling.
You should write songs to learn how to tell a story in pictures, in a compressed and powerful form, to feel rhythm and to feel the shock of melody in your head, no matter if it’s good.
You should write plays, even short plays, and get people together to act them out, so you can hear when a scene goes thunk, and how changing the order of the words will help, and why your scene doesn’t do what you think it does, or why it does.
But keep writing, just keep writing, drink of it deeply in different forms, turn it on end, and things will happen. For one, you will be there when the fucking great moment comes. You will have chops. You will have your fingers on the keys. You will be able to write a poem that is true by the poet in your screenplay or feel the rhythm of a montage, and you will be able to write a gorgeous pitch letter, after fifty drafts, that is distilled and brutal or funny and pops because you will know how to use words. You might touch the heart of some exhausted young assistant who has managed to hold onto her dreams of making great films because she loves art, even if her boss is screaming at her and her colleagues are trying to seem smarter than each other because they want to succeed, and they are afraid they will not. There just might be something about you that is different.
At any rate, you need to keep your fingers on the keys, your index cards in your pockets, your voice memos set to record and you need to keep capturing what is important and keep writing because you are the only one that knows your stories, and we all need you now more than ever.